Law Enforcement Considers Religious Sensitivities

Far from the world of military detention centers, Arab-Americans and Muslim outreach groups in the United States have been helping law enforcement officials gain the awareness they need to respond to religious sensitivities and avoid the backlash recently visited on the U.S. military.

Maha ElGenaidi (search), president of the California-based Islamic Networks Group, which does training with local law enforcement, said her group has had "phenomenal experiences" with local police officers wanting to improve community policing efforts. ElGenaidi said the Pentagon Koran uproar at the U.S. military prison in Cuba is far removed from the experiences she has had in bringing law enforcement and Muslims together.

"I think what is happening in Guantanamo Bay and other places is a whole different set of circumstances," ElGenaidi said.

Nawar Shora (search), director of the law enforcement outreach program at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, spends a lot of his time in cultural awareness classes with local, state and federal law enforcement, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which were carried out by Muslim terrorists.

"Although the recent Koran story hasn't directly affected my classes, it demonstrates a very important fact," Shora said. "It doesn't matter whether it actually took place or not, what matters is the perception of what took place. We already have tensions growing and small minorities on each side that wish for things to escalate."

News reports of religious discrimination and cultural insensitivities by the U.S. military have been circulating since 2002, nearly as long ago as the start of the U.S.-led coalition effort to rout Taliban and Al Qaeda (search) operatives from Afghanistan.

In late May, Newsweek magazine retracted a story that said U.S. military guards in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated the Koran, Islam's holy book, by flushing it down a toilet. The original story led to rioting and at least 15 deaths in Afghanistan.

Last Friday evening, the U.S. Southern Command, which has responsibility for Guantanamo Bay, released the results of an investigation by Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, which showed that while no credible evidence implicates any guard or interrogator of flushing the Koran, one guard admitted three months ago that his urine had splashed onto a detainee and his Koran through an air vent next to the location where the guard had relieved himself.

In all, the Pentagon probe cited five cases in which the Koran had been handled insensitively or damaged. One case, in July 2003, ultimately resulted in a contractor with "a pattern of unacceptable behavior" being fired.

While Pentagon officials appear relieved that reaction abroad to Friday's admission has so far not been violent, the Department of Defense says the military has taken great measures to protect the book, of which 1,600 are available to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay alone.

Back in January 2003, the Pentagon issued guidelines intended to "ensure the safety of the detainees and [military police] while respecting the cultural dignity of the Korans, thereby reducing the friction over the searching the Korans."

Click to read the Department of Defense's Koran procedures (pdf).

According to the guidelines, if handling the holy book is absolutely necessary during a routine search, for instance, military personnel must be reverent.

"Two hands will be used at all times when handling the Koran in a manner signaling respect and reverence. Care should be used so that the right hand is the primary one used to manipulate any part of the Koran due to the cultural association with the left hand. Handle the Koran as if it were a fragile piece of delicate art," the procedures state.

But religious considerations for the more than 12,500 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq military prison camps are a tense issue, particularly against the backdrop of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and other allegations, like those recently described in declassified FBI documents in which detainees complained that interrogators used tactics against prisoners they knew would offend Muslim sensibilities.

"What happened there is unique to the military — they are learning as they go," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police. Pasco said law enforcement officers in the United States don't have the same problems as military police because the concepts behind cultural awareness are not new to police officers.

"We've been detaining people of all ethnicities, cultures and genders from day one," Pasco said.

Still, local, state and federal law enforcement agents are given constant reminders of the need for sensitivity. Manjit Singh, co-founder and vice chairman for the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said his group has provided training to over 5,000 police officers.

Sikhs are not Muslims, but have spent a lot of time and effort to make that clear since Sept. 11 when Singh said Sikhs were unfairly targeted by law enforcement, mostly because they "look Middle Eastern" and wear turbans.

Included in that training is the distribution of index cards offering suggestions on how to deal with the Sikh's unique religious observances, particularly when they are in detention, like the wearing of the turban in public, the long hair and beards — an absolute must for Sikh men.

"We are not asking for special treatment, what we are asking for is respectful and appropriate treatment," Singh said.

Singh said the Koran uproar underscores the idea that the more cultural information law enforcement has, the less potential for flare-ups between the two sides.

"That way, hopefully, incidents in this respect could be minimized, eliminating these kinds of controversies that we now know can have a global impact," he said. "In more and more cases, law enforcement agencies are beginning to realize that and are requesting training from us."

Community outreach efforts into the large San Jose/Santa Clara County Muslim community also include cultural training as well as real immersion to try to avoid cross-cultural blow-ups. San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis, who has taken the training to heart, fasted last year in order to observe the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

A non-Muslim, Davis wanted to show solidarity by not eating between sunrise and sunset for the month-long observance. After the daily restraint, he would join congregants at local mosques or community gatherings or in the homes of Muslim families to break the fast.

Davis said he includes cultural training sessions in his department "so [officers] can begin to understand how important it is to be aware of these cultural differences. It could mean the gaining of the support of the community or losing it."

Senior Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he thinks the military's guidelines have helped to prevent more anti-American reactions, though the recent riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere show that it only takes one incident to set back relations.

"What this inquiry has demonstrated is that there have been procedures in place ever since the beginning of operations at Guantanamo that reflected a sensitivity to cultural and religious aspects of the detainees that were there," Whitman said.